When we think about waterfowl hunting, we usually drum up the image of wetlands and boat blinds, but some of the best waterfowl hunting actually occurs on dry land. The nice thing about the field hunt is that it can be as simple or as complicated as you make it—so long as you can find a hot field, you’ll have plenty of opportunities.
Getting to Know Your Prey
If you’re embarking on a field hunt, you’re going to be targeting “puddle ducks” or “dabblers”: these are birds that primarily feed on nutritious grain in farm fields. They generally stay on the outskirts of bodies of water when around roosting waters, whereas their counterpart “divers”, submerge themselves underwater to feed.
Some people opt for the field hunt because they prefer to leave roosting waters alone as a place of refuge and safety for waterfowl species. Other people like the convenience of the field hunt because it means they can avoid the uncomfortable wetness and cold of the water hunt. And some just love the rush of days spent scouting finally paying off as they watch their target fall out of the sky.
Whatever your reason, the species of waterfowl you’ll encounter are:
- Canada Goose
- Blue-winged Teal
- Green-winged Teal
- Black duck
SCOUTING STRATEGIES ON LAND
Location, Location, Location
Migrant birds have adapted well to the modern landscape, feeding heavily on nutritious grains like rye, barely, peas, beans, wheat, oats, and more. Hunters have had great success scouting farmer’s fields for waterfowl, all without getting their feet wet.
The biggest difference is in the scouting process: you’ll need to spend some time finding a “hot field” and the exact portion of that field where birds are flying overhead (seasoned hunters refer to this spot as the “X”).
Preparedness: Look at areal images of the land prior to your hunt and pick an area to do your scouting. Look out for large agricultural areas and a body of roosting waters nearby. Pick out a ten-mile section and drive in a loose grid pattern.
Timing: Waterfowl generally feed at two times: dawn and dusk, weather permitting. During colder months, they may only feed once a day.
Patience: Don’t worry if you don’t spot any birds right away. Field hunting usually requires several days of glassing and observation before you find the right spot.
Permission: Once you’ve found your desired spot, you’ll have to ask the property owner for permission. Depending on when it is in the season, most landowners will be happy to have you hunt on their land, because migrant birds are usually considered a nuisance. But politeness and a gift of thanks go a long way.
Concealment: You’ll need to get a little creative in order to conceal yourself in the big wide open. A blind will be your best bet—it will provide shelter from the elements as well as an additional layer of comfort—but it’s a good idea to take things a step further by adding natural components to your cover. Many hunters will smear mud over their blinds, involve grasses or grain stubble by looping loose brush into their blind covers. It’s mostly just about getting your blind to blend into its environment.
Note: Another option for scouting is to start at the source: visit roosting waters and follow any birds leaving to feed. If they stay within a few miles, you should be able to find the X pretty quickly. But even if they are travelling farther distances and it takes you a while to track them down, at least you’ll be working off of reliable information rather than a hunch. Bonus: you’ll be able to pinpoint the exact spot where they are landing, telling you where you should set up your blinds and decoys.
It’s estimated that 90% of hunts fail because of insufficient camouflage. The more you use the natural existing elements around you for cover, the better concealed you’ll be and the more opportunities you’ll have. Use ample natural vegetation to your advantage.
Getting Your Ducks in a Row
The importance of having a good decoy selection, and knowing how to utilize it properly, cannot be understated. Waterfowl are skittish creatures, and they intuitively associate numbers with safety, so the more you have the better. You’ll want a larger spread on land than you would on the water, so a lot of hunters opt to use a combination of multiple models for maximum realism.
Decoys come in four basic types:
- Shell: Stack easily for transport, 3-D realism.
- Silhouette: Two-dimensional, but good for adding numbers.
- Wind Stocks: Fall flat without wind, but great for simulating movement.
- Full Body Models: Most realistic appearance, difficult to transport, expensive.
Typically, on land, hunters will arrange their decoys in a C-shape, with the ideal “landing spot” or “X” centered. Beyond that, follow these simple rules to help with your decoy set-up:
Rule #1: Don’t be afraid to mix decoys, but because birds usually feed into the wind and ducks stay ahead of geese on the ground, ensure you place goose decoys downwind of duck decoys.
Rule #2: Use decoys to disguise yourselves! If you’re too far from your spread or just hiding up wind, geese and ducks can usually pick you out.
Rule #3: Use the most realistic decoys on the outskirts of your set up.
Rule #4: : Incorporate some motion. This will help make your set up look even more convincing, and it can be easily done with a goose flag, or a DIY version made with a dowel rod and durable material.
Rule #5: Leave a space in your decoy arrangement that provides a natural landing spot for birds. Keep things loose so incoming birds aren’t worried about overcrowding. A V, C, or J spot works well.
Effective calling is more of an artform than a science, and the best callers gained their expertise through experience and trial and error, so it’s likely you’ll have to do a lot of the same in order to find success. Think of your calls as tools to be deployed at just the right moment, intended to convince birds who seem unsure about your decoys.
Depending on whether you’re trying to entice duck or geese, there are different call strategies to employ. There are four different types of duck calls that are crucial for a waterfowl hunter to know:
- The Quack
- Feed Call
- Mating Call
- Comeback Call
Canada Geese produce a large variety of sounds, and sophisticated waterfowl hunters will have a wide range of calls in their back pocket to entice birds, but you can accomplish a lot just by knowing two basic calls:
- The Long-Range Hail: This a two-note sound that can be described as a “her-onk” used to entice birds far off in the distance. It should start out low and growling, and then shifts in the second note to a higher-pitched and sharper sound. As birds approach, speed up the call and slowly decrease the volume.
- The Cluck: Once birds are within a closer range, transition to this is one-note sound that resembles an “onk” and repeat over and over until the birds are within shooting range.
ON THE HUNT
Shoot Your Shot
A lot of preparation work goes into a field hunt, from days of scouting and glassing to the effort it takes to camouflage yourself in the big wide open, so once you finally coax a flock of birds into making a descent, the feeling is pure adrenaline. The hard part is over—it’s time to aim and shoot and watch your next meal fall out of the sky.
A 12-guage, 3-inch shotgun is typically used for most general all-purpose waterfowl hunting. Depending on species hunted, 3 ½-inch 12 gauge (for Larger Canada Geese) or a 20-gauge, 3-inch shotgun (for ducks) can be employed with great success. Many hunters find a 12-gauge shotgun chambered for 3 ½” shells allows for a more versatile combination by allowing you to downsize to 3-inch or even 2 ¾-inch shotshells for up close decoy spread shooting regardless of species hunted. Non-Toxic (Non- Lead) shotshell ammunition is mandatory for waterfowl hunting.
Selecting the right ammunition can vary depending on the birds and hunting situation you expect to encounter. Essentially, you’ll want a shot size that puts enough force out to ensure multiple hits on a bird, and those pellets have to be travelling fast enough to pierce vital organs. Your perfect shot size is going to strike a balance between pattern density and pellet energy. The best way to see what works best in your shotgun is to pattern it with different choke tubes , ammunition brands and different shot sizes.
Shooting from a layout blind or a boat blind is different than shooting from a standing position: you have to act quickly and it’s not the most natural motion to get used to. Spend an afternoon practicing shooting clay targets from a layout blind before heading out on your hunt and you’ll have some muscle memory to back you up.
It’s a good idea to assign a “pit boss” to call the shots—literally. You won’t want to let a flock go by because everyone thought they were being polite. Have a clear plan of action and they’ll be no confusion when you finally get your moment.
Depending on the size of your group, divide up the target area above the decoys into shooting lanes so everyone knows what area belongs to them. If birds are favouring a certain spot in the decoy spread, you can always adjust it to try to even out the shooting opportunities for your group or rotate hunters into blinds that are seeing more action. There is also a safety factor involved by designating shooting lanes. No cross-shooting overhead or behind the blinds makes for a much more enjoyable and safe hunt.
When a bird is executing a landing, they’ll cup their wings and sometimes extend their legs: if you’re seeing this action, it’s time to shoot! Take care to not rush: slow your breath, and try to focus on one target at a time. Avoid flock shooting even if a massive flock is flying overhead.
Concentrate on a single bird and move on to the next. Your shooting percentage will improve if you can resist the temptation of shooting too soon. You have a far better chance of hitting air than a bird if you’re shooting blindly. Lock in your gaze and follow it through.